Anti-Racism in Our Curriculum



By Kate Knopp
Dean of Faculty

From Fall 2018 Putney Post

Everyone is working at it. How is Putney doing its diversity work?

Putney students learn by doing. This is as true for learning how to be a citizen in a pluralistic democracy as it is for learning how to get milk from a cow. Students’ citizenship in our school is rehearsal for the part they will play in our democracy; it is practice for activism in the wider world. Citizenship—at the Putney School or in our republic—requires of us different things at different times. Students understand that we trust them with real work. We trust them with social justice work, too.

This time in America is charged and it has kicked Putney students into high gear. People are divided and our media divisive. Our current students are awake to the need for their vision and voice in the world. Determined to have an impact, our job as progressive educators is to give students meaningful work to do while they find their talents and voices. Guiding our youngest citizens to learn to define themselves, nurture their talents, and participate in a collective effort to build “a civilization worthy of the name” is Putney’s daily work. What, though, does citizenship mean at this moment? How are students learning to make an impact? Diversity and equity—learning to dialogue across difference by listening well, by asserting nuanced and articulate opinions—is the work citizens do in democracies; they read widely and think deeply to frame issues, debate, caucus, compromise, and vote. That’s what we are up to on the hillside, too.

At Putney we have three groups working on issues of diversity and equity; a committee on the board of trustees, a committee of teachers and administrators, and a committee of student leaders that works with the support of faculty members. Each group invests in its work a little differently, but all seek to value our differences and include many points of view as we make our school “more perfect.” We try to support students and faculty of color and push the school to sustain community-wide dialogue about our progress. We don’t always get it right, but we try to be both humble and responsive when our work misses the mark or is simply too slow.

Putney’s board has declared, over many decades, the need to create a more diverse and inclusive community in each strategic plan. In 2016 the board wrote a ten-year vision for the school to be implemented in a series of three-year action plans. The ten-year vision is, like the Fundamental Beliefs, intentionally aspirational and not very specific. As the political, economic, and cultural currents in the US collide, the particular ways we address our own progress on campus change. The piece of the board’s vision that has made it into common parlance on campus is that students must graduate able to “work effectively across race, class, and cultural divides.” No small task, to be sure, but it is meaningful and ongoing work.

The first three-year action plan (2016–2019) asked the community to define what we mean when we say we are working on “diversity.” Are we talking about race, primarily, or does the word call us to include all kinds of difference? Wide-ranging differences in opinion on the board about how broadly or narrowly to define diversity have been instructive; we know how complex the work can be and we know the dialogue will stretch us to listen, to empathize, and to act. The plan also tasks the faculty with mapping diversity and cultural fluency opportunities for our students. Teachers need to identify current content and assignments that let students see and study structural racism and sexism and explore power, privilege, and difference.

Our work as teachers and students on campus

It’s easy to get bogged down in the density and complexity of content of as we strive for more inclusive and multicultural programs. What should we be reading and studying and discussing? Content changes from year to year just as our students do. Our commitment to progressive pedagogy means that we meet students at the edge of their knowledge and fuel their curiosity; we give them space to define their questions. In ninth grade they write an “identity quest,” in tenth grade they write memoirs and portraits of people at work. They share their work and discuss their differences. In eleventh grade they write a series of research essays alongside a thematic American Studies course. Who we have on campus and what they study is always in motion. More than that, we are describing specific skills all students need.

Diversity work is the warp and weft of The Putney Core, which is driven by its throughlines. Diversity is highlighted in throughline of Ethical, Cultural and Social Justice—of course—but lives also in the skills described in three other standards, Argumentation, Literacy and Communication, and Collaboration. By naming and practicing individual skills that enable Putney students to “work effectively across difference,” we have staked ground in developing citizens who can participate effectively in democratic processes—who can activate others to work toward a “more perfect union”—people who will have an impact.

Where some schools offer packaged programs, we give students space to question. Where other schools build curriculum around themes—race and ethnicity, gender and identity, civil rights, and social activism—Putney students pursue their questions. The student diversity leaders set the agenda for the community, design workshops, lead discussions, and demand review and revision of our practices. Our pedagogy as a progressive school insists students will walk into spaces bravely—and they do. We ask them to imagine the community they’d like to live and learn in and then we say, “What will we do to make it so?”

The student diversity leaders are “selected leaders,” meaning that they apply for their positions. Last year we had sixteen applications for six spots. We offer them a little training, with our own faculty and from outside groups, but mostly we let them exercise their agency by leading the work on campus. Each year the group’s mission changes a little. This year’s leaders are resolved to “encourage conversation and respectful disagreements among student and faculty and to direct attention to issues of ‘ism’ in an attempt to dismantle forms of oppression on and off the hill, and to be a resource for the community as people seek to better understand various identities.”

What are the ongoing debates?

We have ongoing, and mostly healthy debates about the best ways to push forward with this work. One, as mentioned above, centers on how broadly or narrowly to define
“diversity,” and if this is even a useful word. If we define it too narrowly, we lose sight of the complexity of our society and of individuals. If we define it too broadly, it is not useful for decision-making.

Another debate centers on the thorny topic of financial aid. The majority of people who can afford boarding school tuition are white, reflecting centuries of American history’s unequal opportunity. Do we use financial aid to repair some small piece of this damage or do we seek to fund a broad variety of students from different backgrounds? Most people instinctively say “both,” but the reality of limited financial aid resources make this question very real, and very personal.

A third question is that of the role of a person specifically hired to do this work on campus. Many schools have a director of equity and inclusion, or someone with a similar title. The job can be primarily about support of students, or more focused on structural and curricular matters. How a school opens up both time and power for someone to do this work is critical. Asking a single person to work on the many legacies of injustice in a community is asking a lot and risks robbing responsibility for the work from each of us. We all have work to do to make our school and our democracy inclusive and equitable.

Students and faculty have been digging deep into issues of power and privilege and how it operates at our school. The discourse on campus right now is honest; while we sometimes offend, talk over, or assume we understand one another, all of us are pulled by our vision to use our differences to enrich our learning and build community. It seems, then, a good time to support and hone our efforts by adding a person who can leverage our recent efforts. Putney will be looking for someone to join our team in this role during the course of this year, and we hope that alumni and parents will be helpful in our outreach.